ISL preview: Of contenders and pretenders

ATK Mohun Bagan, the pretender-in-chief for the top honours, has assembled a squad that is the equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters of Indian football and will look to dethrone last season's season’s double winner Mumbai City FC.

Mumbai City FC

Mumbai City FC will be the team to beat this season as it looks to become the first club in the Indian Super League's history to defend its title.   -  ISL/Sportzpics

Yet another season of the Indian Super League (ISL 2021-22) will kick off when ATK Mohun Bagan takes on Kerala Blasters in Goa on Friday. This, hopefully, is the last time that we see a seven-month interval between top-flight seasons and the last of a closed division.

The two richest clubs in the league and last season’s playoffs finalists – Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan – start favourites for the Shield and the playoff title. Last season’s double winner Mumbai City will, however, begin the defence without Sergio Lobera, under whom it topped every key conceivable statistic in the league. The incumbent Des Buckingham, who is promoted from within the City Football Group (CFG) and the youngest manager in the league, has the task of not only retaining the titles but doing it in style, keeping up with the CFG blueprint of attacking football.

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ATK Mohun Bagan, the pretender-in-chief for the top honours, has assembled a squad that is the equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters of Indian football. After finishing runner-up in both the Shield and playoffs, ATKMB has significantly strengthened its attack with Hugo Boumous and Liston Colaco, the two best players from rivals Mumbai and Hyderabad FC. Amrinder Singh arrived on a free transfer from Mumbai along with the addition of Iceland international Joni Kauko. With possibly the best squad in the league at his disposal, nothing but the silverware will be a success for head coach Antonio Habas.

Antonio Habas

Antonio Habas will look to clinch the silverware on offer this season, after losing out on the League Winners Shield and title to Mumbai City FC last campaign.   -  ISL/Sportzpics

 

The new season will be made intriguing with the introduction of the 3+1 foreign players, with a relaxation of the mandatory AFC-region player for 2021-22, in the playing XI. Previously, with the five-foreigner rule, successful teams built their XIs around a solid spine made of overseas players. The new rule provides an opportunity for domestic players to make their case in key areas of the pitch: central defence, midfield, and attack.

On the back of a creditable debut Champions League campaign, Juan Ferrando’s FC Goa had an early trial of the rule against Asia’s elite in April. For any follower of Indian football, FC Goa is a must-watch football team. Stacked with technical gifted overseas and Indian footballers, who play an enterprising brand of football, the club is has been at the forefront in unearthing exciting domestic talents. Goa has registered 11 players from the state, while also promoting three developmental players to the first-team squad. With the Durand Cup success already under its belt, Ferrando’s Goa poses the biggest threat to the top two.

Owen Coyle is into his third season in India, second with Jamshedpur FC, and is seemingly a man on a mission to land the prized ISL crown. A good start to the previous season was derailed by big injuries midway and Jamshedpur struggled to resurrect its playoffs hope. The Red Miners have retained most of their squad and will give it another go.

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A crammed fixture list, in a four-month packed league with 115 matches, once again stares hard at the teams and the onus will be on the head coaches to find the right balance and rotate the players to see out the season. 

“The future is youth,” spelled out Bengaluru FC’s new Italian boss Marco Pezzaiuoli upon taking the job. The most successful Indian club of the last decade is in serious need of some overhaul in its philosophy and personnel after two uninspiring campaigns. The average age of the squad is trimmed to 24.7 from 26.12 with the departures of mainstays Erik Paartalu (34), Dimas Delgado (37), Juanan (33), and Harmanjot Khabra (33).

 

While developing young players is part of the process, the biggest challenge for the former technical director of Eintracht Frankfurt will be to get the club to the top again. For all the emphasis on youth, striker and captain Sunil Chhetri, 37, still remains the best player at the club.

Sunil Chhetri is the leading Indian goal-scorer in the ISL.   -  Sportzpics for ISL

 

After missing out on a playoff place on the final day of the league stage, Manolo Marquez’s Hyderabad FC will want to prove last season was no fluke. The young Indian core is a year older and has international pedigree under their wings and will be backed by proven overseas performers for the upcoming season. Former ISL champions Bartholomew Ogbeche (Mumbai City), Juanan (Bengaluru), and Eric Garcia (ATK) can provide the experience to help the club take the next step.

NorthEast United surprised many with its mid-season resurgence that led to a playoff finish last year. And the club will hold the interest of many with the full-time appointment of Khalid Jamil as the head coach, a first for an Indian. NEUFC lost prized midfielder Lalengmawia Apuia to Mumbai City for a record transfer fee, and it will be up to Jamil to weave his magic to get the squad to overcome the odds against the big dogs.

The bottom four clubs from last season – Chennaiyin FC, SC East Bengal, Kerala Blasters, and Odisha FC – have all made changes in the head coach seat. If you are a believer in coincidences, then Chennaiyin could keep up with its tradition of doing well in even-number ISL seasons after a poor outing the previous season. Anirudh Thapa has been entrusted with the captaincy and the club will need to cover its bases to avoid a drop in form if chief creator Rafael Crivellaro faces a spell on the sidelines.

Anirudh Thapa

Anirudh Thapa will captain Chennaiyin FC this season.   -  Sportzpics/ISL

 

SC East Bengal’s integration into the ISL was meant to provide a face-lift for the league but there was little evidence of it in its debut campaign. East Bengal parted ways with Robbie Fowler and appointed Spaniard Manolo Diaz, who spent several years coaching the Real Madrid Castilla. Preparations were hampered yet again with uncertainty surrounding its participation in the league before signings were completed frantically towards the end of the transfer window. The fans will hope for less sideshow off the pitch and more emphasis on improved results.

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Kerala Blasters has now gone four seasons without challenging for the top four and has had the most manager turnover in the history of the league. A group stage exit in the Durand Cup with a full-strength squad wasn’t ideal for the new head coach Ivan Vukomanovic. The domestic signings in the last two seasons have ticked the right boxes but the Blasters management tends to miss the mark with the overseas recruitment. Big hopes lie with striker Alvaro Vasquez, who has over 150 La Liga appearances under his belt. 

All the good work done by Josep Gombau at Odisha FC, previously Delhi Dynamos, with a young Indian core seemed to be undone when the management appointed Scotsman Stuart Baxter. Odisha has, now, turned to another Spaniard Kiko Ramirez to stage a turnaround in fortune. 

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